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Pitcher overcomes loss of leg

5/11/2010
Play8:46
E:60 Stand and Deliver

Baseball player's dream almost shattered after a boating accident and his journey to return to the mound with one leg.

Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz sent a letter, his book and an autographed photo calling Nate Winters his hero.

Milwaukee Brewers All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun mailed a signed bat and ball to Nate.

The Boston Red Sox sent a jersey from Jonathan Papelbon. Jason Varitek's parents took signed photographs of their son and visited Nate in the hospital.

Even Tiger Woods, who lives across town, sent an autographed picture with the phrase, "Be tough always." He signed it "Eldrick."

There has been an outpouring of love and support for Nate, a 17-year-old junior starting pitcher for Winter Park High School in Florida.

"Whenever a person tells me that I am inspiring, it definitely touches me. … My hard work is paying off," Nate told "E:60." "The last 20 months, I just think I have had to go through hell."

Land, water and air

It was Aug. 5, 2008, a typical Florida day full of sun, clouds and clearing skies. According to Nate, around 5 p.m. he and a few friends wanted to take their small propeller boat out on Lake Maitland just outside Orlando, Fla. They waited for Nate's older brother, Zach Winters, who was home from Cornell University, to drive the boat.

"I was a little apprehensive about them [Nate and his friends] taking out the boat," Zach said. "It wasn't because somebody was going to get hurt, but I thought that they were going to actually hurt the boat. So, I was worried for the boat's sake."

A few hundred yards from the edge of the Winters' backyard near the lake sits a small mass of land called Dog Island. The group of six friends took the boat out from the dock.

"I was sitting in the driver's seat, my brother was sitting in the front, the bow of the boat on the left side, and the four other kids were all sitting on the side of the boat the back of the boat as well," Zach recalled. "We must have been going between 25 and 35 mph, and I just remember turning around the island."

Nate said that from that point, he doesn't remember much. "All of a sudden, I get thrown off the boat, and I hit the water hard and I blank out."

They'd been on the water about five minutes. It happened in a matter of seconds. The boat ran over him.

"When the boat went over him, you still want to have hope," Zach said. "You want to hope that maybe he missed the propeller, that nothing happened. But once you saw that plume of blood you knew that it was a bad situation."

The propeller under the boat hit Nate's back in three places, including his ribs, and came just inches from puncturing his lung. It cut directly through his right Achilles and his right foot in multiple places and sliced through his left leg above the knee, cutting his femoral artery.

Nate says he saw horror. He lifted up his right leg and saw his foot and toes just hanging on by a thread. He tried to lift up his left leg but realized it was barely attached. "I just screamed as loud as I could, and I go, 'Oh my God, I lost my leg! I can't walk, I can't play baseball. I can't do anything now!'"

Nate was bleeding profusely in the dirty lake. "I saw a lot of blood around me, and I was worried that alligators would come," he said. "That kind of gave me another surge of adrenaline to get back to the boat."

Zach and his friends lifted Nate onto the boat. He yelled at Nate to stay awake, saying, "Look at me! Look at me!" Zach's voice can be heard during a 911 call just minutes after the accident as he tried to keep Nate conscious. Zach tied a tourniquet on Nate's left leg to stop the bleeding.

"I personally thought I was dead, so I just tried to take in everything that I could, just the view and being on the lake," Nate said. "I mean, I figured that if I'm going to die, why not just die on the lake?"

As the paramedics were arriving as the boat hit land, Nate recalls an odd experience. "They put me on the land, and they just were doing stuff to me like sticking me with needles, and they put a body bag over me, and I go, 'Hey guys, I'm not dead yet.'"

Nate saw his father, Dr. Tom Winters, an orthopedic surgeon, arrive. He grabbed his dad and showed him his severed leg. "I said, 'Dad, am I going to live?'" His father knew the seriousness of the injury but says he had a false sense of security when he looked in his son's eyes. "I said, 'Nate, obviously God has got a plan for you, so if you got this far, no, you're not going to die."

An ambulance drove Nate less than a mile to a nearby soccer field. A medical helicopter was able to land in a spacious area that was not blocked by power lines. Nate was airlifted in approximately four minutes to the Orlando Regional Medical Center's trauma center. The time saved was crucial during rush hour, as an ambulance would have taken 20 minutes to get to the hospital.

Upon Nate's arrival, doctors estimated he had lost 80 percent of his blood. His hemoglobin level was 3.1, far below the average 15 hemoglobin level of a healthy person.

Dr. David Miller, the first doctor to see Nate, said he knew why he was still alive. "The person who probably saved Nate's life was his brother Zach," Miller said. "When the accident occurred, his brother got him back in the boat and made a tourniquet and stopped the bleeding. I'm sure that literally saved his life."

Doctors put a line into Nate's chest and pumped 15 units of O-negative universal donor blood in him. Nate was in surgery for more than four hours. Doctors could not save his left leg, and his right leg suffered major injuries, including a torn Achilles. Fourteen hours after the accident, Nate woke up around 7 a.m. the next day.

"The first time I looked down and I saw that my leg was amputated, I didn't know what to think. I was just like, 'Holy crap. What, what is this? Like I'm an athlete, I'm a baseball player, I like to work out, I like to go out and do stuff, active.' It just put this bad, bad feeling down my down my spine. Then I kind of just said, 'You know what? It happened to me, and I just need to move on and make myself a different person, a better person.'"

Only minutes after thanking his brother for saving his life, Nate was on the phone calling his friends, but first he had to call his baseball coach, Bob King.

"The very next morning I was lying in bed, and Katie, my daughter Katie, came running into the room and said, 'Dad, Dad, it's Nate,'" said King, who had learned of the accident earlier. "I actually thought that Nate was gone, and she said, 'It's Nate. He's on the phone.' So one second I thought Nate was gone, and the next minute she passed me the phone and I was talking to Nate. Nate said, 'Coach, have you heard? I lost my leg.' And we carried on a bit of a conversation."

Then Nate told his coach, "I want to play baseball."

Winters' hill

After returning home, Nate endured 11 surgeries on his right leg and foot. He had a new Achilles built. He was fitted with a walking leg. One particularly difficult day, when Nate was depressed and sitting in his bedroom thinking about how he couldn't play baseball anymore, there was a knock at the door.

"[Boston Celtics coach] Doc Rivers walks in, and I go, 'Oh my God, it's Doc Rivers.' He just said, 'Nate, you're going to do what you, whatever you want.' He gave me a Celtics shirt, and he shook my hand. I said, 'Wow. That's amazing.' I just met what I see as a legend, and he just told me that I'm going to do it and I'm going to do it now."

It was a turning point that helped Nate focus on his recovery and return to the hill. He talked with his father and Coach King, and decided it was time to throw a baseball. It was more than a year after the accident, in late 2009, when Nate decided to throw to a live batter in a practice scrimmage.

"Nate was facing the batter, and he threw one pitch very awkwardly and he actually fell over, and I remember it was very emotional for him," catcher Mike Boles said.

Nate wanted to quit baseball. "I went into the dugout and I just hit the lockers as hard as I could, and I just said, 'Screw this game. I'm done with this,'" he said.

Nate needed a new leg. After consulting with Stan Patterson, an Orlando prosthetist, he got his new leg. He was convinced he wouldn't fall anymore with his new leg that is used by wakeboarders and skiers. "It has a built-in spring, so when I bend, it doesn't give out. It actually like pushes back on me."

A night to remember

After pitching in a couple of junior varsity games for Winter Park High School, Nate was ready for a varsity start. He had won one varsity game as a freshman in 2008. On April 12, 2010, against Colonial High, Nate started the game. His fastball registered 80 mph on his father's radar gun. He allowed only one hit and one unearned run in four innings but didn't get the win.

Eleven days later, in his second varsity start since the accident, Nate was on the mound facing Lake Howell High School. "I need to get a win," Nate said.

Nate gave up a couple of runs in the first and two more in the second inning. Winter Park was down 4-0. "I was like, 'All right guys, let's pick this up. I'm not done yet. This game's still young,'" Nate said. "We picked it up, and our offense scored like 10 runs the next three innings."

Winter Park's hitting exploded. According to some, it was the largest crowd ever at a Winter Park High School game -- an estimated 500. They passionately cheered every time Nate walked off the mound. Nate settled down and started getting outs, and he gave up only one more run during the next three innings. He pitched 5 1/3 innings and left the game with the lead after giving up five runs.

Winter Park won 11-5.

"My first win with one leg," Nate said, "it's a pretty big accomplishment to me."

This tight-knit baseball community supported the Winters family throughout the ordeal. Zack Greinke, who once pitched in the same league as Nate, called and sent a jersey. Former major leaguer Dennis Rasmussen helped connect Nate to Patterson and was there when Nate got his first win.

"After the first inning and every time he came off of the field, he got a standing ovation. People appreciate what he's done," Rasmussen said. "They know the effort and the tireless work and the pain that he's gone through."

Nate has been invited to throw out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game in August, and his story has gone global. His family -- mother, father and brother -- has been invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI in Rome at the Vatican next month. It was a meeting that might never have happened.

"Twenty months ago I was dead, I died," Nate said. "Now I'm able to do things that I did with two legs."

Ben Houser is a senior producer for "E:60." Video editor Matt McCormick contributed to this report.